This is such a powerful book. The author's pseudonym, Bandi, means "firefly" in Korean. If the story of the provenance is true (and publisher Grove Atlantic has apparently researched it as best they can, and while they can't definitively prove it's real, there seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence in its favor), it's borderline amazing that it's out in the world for everyone to read. What's reported is that Bandi had a relative who was able (barely) to escape from North Korea. He'd asked her to take his short stories with her, but she felt it more prudent to try and get them later, which is what she did through another person. Bandi is thought to be a now-68-year-old man who, on his own, has been writing short stories that are barely fictionalized accounts of atrocities that have taken place in North Korea. Most stories are dated and seem to have been written in the 1990s, during the terrible famine there. He is said to have shared them with no one else in North Korea (since they could likely lead to his imprisonment at best, death at worst) and only offered them to the trusted relative who was herself trying to escape. His only goal was to get them into print in South Korea, so people could hear an insider's story.
In an interesting twist, there is something of a biography at the end. But it's noted that biographical details have been changed to protect the writer's identity. Which leads to the question of how reliable the bio is; or is the disclaimer meant to throw off North Korean officials? Who knows?
And of course, these stories are horrifying. A man tries to get to his dying mother's home to see her one last time, but the government has other ideas about that. A young mother inadvertently turns her toddler against Marx and Dear Leader, and has to try and cover it up. An honest, dedicated, hard-working man falls further and further into disrepute with the State, witnessed by his cousin and a news reporter.
Sort of a spoiler alert--there are not what you'd call happy endings in any of these. But I'm guessing that's not much of a spoiler. As to whether or not the stories are true, or were truly written by a North Korean dissident, I don't know; but having read Barbara Demick's excellent Nothing to Envy, these stories sure ring true.
I had some quibbles about some of the writing, but you know what, for once I'm not going to go there. Again, if the backstory is true, this writer is risking prison, torture, death, just to get these stories on paper. It's not likely he has a supportive writer's group, nor is it probable that he has access to a wide variety of excellent literature. The stories are readable and frightening, and feel like they need to be read. That is enough. If Bandi gets more stories out of North Korea (assuming he's even still there, or alive), I would read those too.